Environment

Fracking on Shaky Ground: How Our Latest Fossil Fuel Addiction Is Linked to Earthquakes

When the mayor of Youngstown, Ohio decides to buy earthquake insurance, you know we've got a big problem.

To what should be the surprise of no one, earthquakes caused by the junkie gas sector's hydraulic fracturing process, known as fracking, have been cropping up like Freud's repressed. The latest ominously arrived in Republican-dominated Ohio on New Year's Eve, quickly prompting Youngstown's mayor to buy earthquake insurance and lament, "You lose your whole house, that's your life savings, and if you have no money or no insurance to replace it, then what do you do?"

That's easy, Mayor Charles P. Sammarone, and anyone else finally learning these hard lessons: You stop fracking, which is to say you stop messing with the geological integrity of your cities, and their water tables. If you're Ohio, then you stop giving GOP industry stooges like Speaker of the House John Boehner and Governor John Kasich access to your precious natural resources. If you're the rest of the world, you accept that you have a serious problem with fossil fuel consumption, detach your complicity and support, and start planning for a future in which deregulated shale gas extraction, and its frackquake-causing disposal wells, are a desperate cry for psychoanalysis rather than an acceptable peak oil market.

Either that, or you sit back and watch as more unassuming fissures threading through your cities swell into destabilized faults in search of frackquakes, or worse.

"There has always been a scientific link between fracking and earthquakes," U.S. Geological Survey spokesperson Clarice Ransom told AlterNet. "The question of whether a hydrological injection project can interact with a nearby active fault to trigger an earthquake is still unresolved."

But not for long, as the fracking industry, emboldened by $750 million in political payouts, continues to tap the planet, stash its toxins, and according to Ransom, create more "tiny earthquakes [normally] too small to be of any concern" yet still "useful to the operators because they provide information about the fracking process."

That self-fulfilling circularity is bound to generate further predictable data with a simple premise: The purpose of hydraulic fracturing is to destabilize the ground beneath our feet to feed our energy addiction, and it has done its job with fearsome precision. At this point, saying we need more science on the cause of frackquakes is as reassuring as saying we need to cause more frackquakes for the purposes of science.

Ohio's NYE eye-opener is a perfect example. It was the 11th in a series of frackquakes in about nine months since D&L Energy started blasting brine and other fracking byproducts into wells over 9,000 feet deep, a clear trend. You can throw it on the pile with exponentially surging frackquakes in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Pennsylvania and even England. Scientific American didn't need much more science from USGS to point out the blindingly obvious: The easiest solution to the frackquake conundrum is a "thorough seismic survey to assess tracts of rock below where oil and gas drilling fluid is disposed of [to] help detect quake prone areas."

Of course, the scientists pointed out, that would be a lot more expensive (at least, at first) than blindly blasting ahead and dealing with the frackquake fallout later. But that's what the $750 million, and rising, payoff to Republicans and Democrats was for. The last thing the industry wants are thorough assessments shutting down its profit margins by telling it where it can and can't frack.

"We are not going to stand by and let someone drive a stake through the heart of what could be an economic revival in Eastern Ohio," Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols told Bloomberg. But it's clear the fracking industry is an environmental Dracula whose dangers and risks only seem to increase as its predictable data arrives, and not just on earthquakes.

Days after Ohio's wake-up call, a fracking well owned by Chesapeake subsidiary Nomac exploded in Oklahoma, after drilling into a pressurized gas pocket. The same day, the Environmental Protection Agency considered trucking fresh water to northeast Pennsylvania to serve the needs of households whose water had been poisoned by fracking wells. New York state lawmakers are seeking to extend a moratorium on fracking, because of this increasingly worrisome data, as well as the brutally frank assessments of previous fracking regulators like Paul Hetzler.

"Let me be clear," Hetzler wrote in a letter, "hydraulic fracturing as it's practiced today will contaminate our aquifers. Not might contaminate our aquifers. Hydraulic fracturing will contaminate New York's aquifers."

There's little room for scientific curiosity in Hetzler's bold proclamation, as well as the scientific link between fracking and earthquakes. Last month, USGS geologist Arthur McGarr presented a new paper at the American Geophysical Union's annual meeting that quantified a proportional relationship between the volume of fluid injected into the ground and the strength of the resultant frackquake. Inject around 10,000 cubic meters of fluid, and you're likely to land a 3.3. magnitude frackquake at maximum, with a 0.4 increase each time you double the volume. Sounds like simple enough math, so what's the problem?

"Dr. McGarr's presentation at AGU indicates that it is still an unresolved issue that there is the possibility that a small-scale fluid injection project may trigger a much larger earthquake on a preexisting fault," Ransom explained to AlterNet. "To date, there are no case histories in which a small-scale fluid injection project triggered a larger-scale earthquake on a nearby fault. More research is needed, though, to resolve the question of whether small injection operations can trigger much larger earthquakes."

To resolve these issues, to quote the USGS's demanding jargon, it is going to need those expensive but thorough seismic surveys, and more frackquakes will of course help. But to settle the issue -- using legal jargon, which the fracking industry better get used to --- scientists and the rest of us need only decrease fracking activity and watch as the freak geological events shrink. Other terrible things will go away as well, including poisoned aquifers, flammable water, skyrocketing insurance premiums and further dependency on an energy sector that simply cannot keep pace with our historical rate of hyperconsumption.

Until that happens, households anywhere within shouting distance of fracking operations, which are attracting attention from major players like Chevron and Exxon, would be well advised to peruse the USGS National Seismic Hazard Maps to fully school themselves on the precious resources, and post-extraction dangers, locked in the fragile ground beneath their feet. Ransom also suggests that anyone living in the 39 states at risk for moderate to large earthquakes memorize the USGS handbook Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Country.

How long it will it be before states at risk for smaller earthquakes that could turn into larger ones decide to read the same? Probably sooner than you think.
 

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.